06 June 2014

A first rough draft of marijuana legalization

Almost everyone I’ve known who’s been involved in events important enough to make the newspapers has been disappointed, even angered, by the superficiality of the coverage. It’s inevitable: Information is being conveyed to a general public that knows less about the subject than the reporters, who in turn know less than the experts and those directly involved.
Reporters like to say that “News is only the first rough draft of history” (attributed to the journalist Alan Barth, writing in 1943). They like the connection to history, but I tend to focus on the “first rough draft” part; generally, it’s silly to complain about the inadequacies of newspaper stories. Still, there are better and worse first drafts. Consider the story in the June 1 New York Times under the headline “After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High.”
I paused to read the article because I favor marijuana legalization and because my younger boy now lives in Boulder (but doesn’t inhale). I found the article frustrating, not because of what it said about marijuana but because of what it said about journalism.
To begin with, when the headline says “sees the downside,” then there should be a real downside. “Sees” is one of those words that implies the truth of what’s seen. But the article presents little hard evidence of a downside and—after a time—admits as much: The subhead on the jump reads “Anecdotes, but scarce data, about the effect of a marijuana law.”
After an opening statement about “a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws,” the reporter moves to a sensational incident: Richard Kirk,, after eating marijuana-laced cookies, began raving about the end of the world, grabbed a handgun from a family safe, and killed his wife, Kristine. There’s a photo of Mrs. Kirk’s coffin being loaded into a hearse. (You later read that Mr. Kirk may also have consumed prescription medication for back pain.)
The article continues: “Some hospital officials say they are seeing growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent does of edible marijuana. Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns.”
This is followed by a quote that “by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you’re in the marijuana business,” which you then discover comes from the executive director of a group opposing legalization. I understand that reporters have to go to spokespersons, but it would be better if they noted the source before the quote, so that readers would know that what they are about to read is, as evidence, worthless. (There are opposing statements by legalization proponents later on, but many readers may not get that far.)
You reach the truly important fact in paragraph five: “Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data. Because of the lag in reporting many health statistics, it may take years to know legal marijuana’s effect—if any—on teenage drug use, school expulsions or the number of fatal car crashes.”
The article does contain some valuable information: Since January, when the State Police began tracking the number of stoned drivers, “marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 1.5% of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” Also, “crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline.” The head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Michele Leonhart, told a U.S. Senate panel that Kansas officials “had tallied a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana that could be traced to Colorado.” However, the article notes that “according to the Kansas Highway Patrol, total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during the first four months of the year, a 61% decline.” (Could Ms. Leonhart have mixed up her “increase”s and “decline”s?) Finally, “so far this year, nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora [a Denver suburb] after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick. In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such cases.” (It’s not clear whether the “such cases” refers to merely consuming marijuana or getting critically sick.)
One implication of the article should give even legalization advocates pause: Apparently it’s possible to pack quite a wallop into a marijuana cookie. As a result, the article informs us, Colorado has tightened labeling and packaging rules for edible marijuana, and is considering limiting the amount of THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana) that can be packed into a single cookie. “Even supporters of legalization … say Colorado needs to pass stricter rules about edible marijuana.”
I’m not saying the story was bad. It had some useful information, especially if you read through to the end. And I’m not opposed to anecdotes; as the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is data. (Sometimes turned into “the plural of anecdote isn’t data”; I prefer the first version.) But to create a “story,” the reporter (and whoever supplied the headline) had to create an interesting narrative, and “Anecdotes, but scarce data” doesn’t make an enticing come-on. So we have an opening that strongly implies that there are real problems with legalization, followed by attempts to walk that conclusion back.
Even the anecdotes seem weak. The domestic shooting (and the report later in the article of a young man who leapt to his death off a hotel balcony after eating a marijuana cookie) are examples of a logical fallacy so ancient it even has a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). And there are lots of questions: How much marijuana, and what else, had the people ingested? (No toxicological evidence is presented.) Were there any pre-existing psychological conditions? (Again, no information.) And most important, but most difficult to judge, the counterfactual: If they hadn’t taken marijuana, what other drug(s) might they have consumed, and with what consequences? People are going to get high, so the important question is: Will more get high, and to worse effect, if marijuana is substituted for other psychoactive media?
Anything that enters your body, from penicillin to peanuts, can harm you. It all depends on the particular interaction. I don’t want to play down the dangers, so here’s an anecdote from my own experience: A million years ago, when I was in college, some of my friends heard that you could get high on a common type of flower seed (I’ve forgotten which one). They bought seed packets at a garden store, chowed down, and for the most part had an enjoyable experience. But one of my friends suffered a terrifying psychotic episode—his first, as far as we know—that led to his temporary hospitalization and that affected him for some time.
There are dangers to psychoactive drugs. No one should be surprised by that. We’ve had enough experience (not merely anecdotal, although the anecdotes will do) with alcohol to have a good idea of its downsides, but have decided that legalization is better than prohibition. But weighing the pros and cons for marijuana, and most of the other stuff we might eat or inhale, requires going beyond the merely anecdotal. That’s not something you’re likely to get from a first rough draft of history.

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